Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Operative Ethic
Three years ago, the day the Iraq War started, I was on a business trip to Smithfield, Virginia. For what it's worth, here are some excerpts from my journal. First, from the morning of March 18, the day I left home, written while fogbound in Chicago, waiting for my flight to Norfolk:
The newspaper headlines are big and black today, although not as big and black as they’ll be on the Thursday or Friday when the war actually starts. It’s got to be on everyone’s mind as they walk through here. And people have to be wondering, as I am, what other shoes are going to drop, will it be here, or maybe where I’m going? The TV news trucks were thick on the ground as I walked through the terminals to my gate. There’s nothing to see out here—I have seen no cops or National Guardsmen, and I fly so seldom that I can’t tell whether there’s extra security or not. But we’re at Code Orange—Secretary Ridge gave us another “remain calm but prepare to die” speech last night—and unlike the last time, this Orange Alert might be permanent.

The fog makes for an interesting sight as planes take off—they soar up, a blast of mist seems to fly off the wings, and they vanish into the gray like a Star-Trek transporter. I remember how when I was a kid we would come to O’Hare just to watch the planes take off. In those days you could walk right to the gate where I am now without a ticket and stay all afternoon if you wanted to. Fewer things are deader and more gone than that.

I finally got to start reading Kingdom of Fear this morning. Dr. [Hunter S.] Thompson is a stiff drink so early in the morning, but worthwhile. I have a feeling I will be copying lines from the book into this journal all week long. “We are living in dangerously weird times now. Smart people just shrug and admit they’re dazed and confused. The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we know it. Doom is the operative ethic.” The New Dumb—is there a better, more pungent, more accurate handle for the conservatives who rule us today? And the Doctor was writing in 2000, before what he might call the High Weirdness truly set in. “Guaranteed Fear and Loathing. Abandon all hope. Prepare for the Weirdness. Get familiar with Cannibalism.” Anything was possible thenb, and it’s even more possible now.
I finally made it to Norfolk that night, after being marooned at O'Hare for eight hours. The next morning, I wrote:
In the world at large, we are bracing ourselves for the whirlwind. The newscasts this morning are full of stories about increased security at home in fear of terrorist reprisals to the attack on Iraq, which will probably begin tomorrow. Why shouldn’t we expect them? If this is war, like the Repugs have been saying for 18 months, war means that both sides suffer. If Americans think we can rule the world with impunity, attacking anyone anytime for any reason, then we have to accept that the same will be our fate. We will also be attacked. While state and local governments are right to prepare, no one should be under the misapprehension that every attack will be stopped. It is not possible to achieve 100% security, Ridge and Ashcroft notwithstanding. So somewhere, something is going to happen. And with every Iraqi we kill, dozens of terrorists wanting to kill us will be born.

This is the thing the Bush gang doesn’t get. I have said it from day one. You cannot make people respect and love you by force. Only by other means can this be done—addressing the root causes of their dissatisfaction, for example. But this is seen as “caving in to terrorists,” so it won’t be done. Instead, we will fight perpetual war without result. Our children will never know peace. We were handed a moment of choice and we blew it.

The war that begins this week may look swift and decisive if it seems to end quickly. But that will be an illusion. It will never end until we learn to be braver than we are.
And that night, I wrote the following. I didn't know it, but I was writing at the precise instant the air assault on Baghdad was beginning:
No war yet, but it can’t be more than a few hours away. We have come a long way from the country we were three or four years ago, let alone four hundred. When I crossed the 4-mile-long James River Bridge tonight, I thought of those travelers of 1607 sailing up to what they called Jamestown. The ride across the bridge is quite striking--tall power line towers on one side, open water to the ocean on the other, with the Newport News shipyards on the oceanside coast. A strong wind was whipping whitecaps tonight--the river looked very wild, and maybe not much different than it looked 400 years ago--or how it will look 400 years from now, after we’re long gone. Makes me wonder what we’ll be leaving for those who come then.
I take a small amount of pleasure that commentators far smarter than I are feeling the same thing I am--a combination of incredulity and toldja-so, remembering how we could see, long before we started the war, that it was going to be a disaster for the United States. More on that later.

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